Would you like to do your Web browsing while keeping a constant eye on what your Facebook friends are doing? If so, then RockMelt is for you.
RockMelt is actually a combined Facebook front end and Web browser. It is built on the foundation of Google's open-source Chromium Web browser, which is also the basis for Google's popular and fast Chrome browser.
You can't download RockMelt without logging into Facebook. Once you have the application (which is still invitation-only), you must log into Facebook and give RockMelt permission to show and manipulate Facebook data before you can install it.
Like most traditionally formatted browsers, there are separate search and address fields (instead of the combined search and address bar that Chrome has). When you use the search box, the results are displayed in a panel. Otherwise, RockMelt acts pretty much like Chrome, with easy-to-use multiple tabs on the top and fast, accurate Web page rendering.
But there is a major difference: In addition to the top-level toolbars, RockMelt also has toolbars on either side of the browser. On the left, you'll see your Facebook friends' icons, and on your right, you'll find icons for your Twitter and RSS feeds.
These tiny icons are color-coded so you can tell when someone is active online and/or has recently posted something. When you click on these mini-icons, a panel opens up that shows you what your friends are up to, lets you IM with another buddy on Facebook and so on. In the case of the RSS feeds, the panel displays a listing of current news items.
At this time, there doesn't seem to a way to scroll up and down the list of icons. So, for instance, you'll only see your most recently active Facebook friends on the left -- you can't scroll down to see others who haven't made any recent updates. You can, however, pick out specific Facebook friends and display just their status on the left sidebar.
Because RockMelt is an early beta, not all its features are available. For example, the Twitter component doesn't work yet. RockMelt staffers say the Twitter component will provide access to your buddies' tweets, let you retweet them, reply to them or enter your own tweets.
RockMelt isn't the first browser to offer social networking along with the Web. If it sounds familiar, that's because at least one other browser, Flock (based both on Mozilla Firefox and Google's Chromium), also tries to be both a social-network front end and a Web browser. However, while Flock uses a sidebar for its social network and RSS feeds, RockMelt uses the edges of the interface.
In the end, the real question will be whether RockMelt's interface works for you. I found it too busy. If you spend a great deal of your day keeping up with your friends on Facebook and you want a fast browser, you may like RockMelt. I think most social networkers will be just as happy with their regular browser and a separate social networking tool such as TweetDeck or Gwibber.
Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols has been writing about technology and the business of technology since CP/M-80 was cutting edge and 300bit/sec. was a fast Internet connection -- and we liked it! He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.